Rosanne Cash Takes On The NRA And Gun Culture

Rosanne Cash performs at The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson produced by Blackbird Presents at Bridgestone Arena on March 16, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Essential Broadcast Media)

Rosanne Cash has spoken out against the National Rifle Association and in favor of gun control in the past, making her case on Twitter and in the pages of The New York Times. Now she's doing it with music.

The song "8 Gods of Harlem," which appears on her latest album, unfolds in Rashoman-like fashion with three different characters observing and reflecting on the aftermath of a deadly street shooting.

"We pray to the God of Gunfire and Regret / We pray to the God of Collateral Children / We pray to them all, the eight Gods of Harlem," Cash sings in the song's soaring chorus, joined by old friends Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello.

Cash performs during a benefit concert at City Winery Nashville on March 1, 2017. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Music Health Alliance)

It is arguably Cash's most overtly political song yet. Much of her recent work starting with the 2006 album Black Cadillac reflects on mortality, loss and grief. Her father, Johnny Cash, passed away in 2003, preceded just a few months by her stepmother, June Carter Cash. A month after her father died, Cash's younger stepsister, musician Rosie Nix Adams, died in an accident. And in 2005, Cash's mother, Vivian Liberto, passed away in her longtime home in Ventura.

Cash said she doesn't believe in the idea of "closure" following the death of a loved one. There is just learning to accept and co-exist with the grief, a sentiment reflected in wistful but life-affirming songs like "Everyone But Me," which also appears on the new album.

"Mother and Father, now that you're gone," croons Cash tenderly, "It's not nearly long enough, still it seems too long."

But this musical move into the politically charged debate over gun control should come as no surprise. She is, after all, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, who famously wrote and sang, "Don't take your guns to town son, leave your guns at home Bill." And she has given her vocal support for tighter federal gun regulation.

"Some people who are not total mainstream country have spoken out, but going public is dangerous," said Cash, sitting on a stool in a studio at Capitol Records in Los Angeles where we met for our interview.

In 2017, after the largest mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas, Cash penned an op-ed calling on country music artists to distance themselves from the NRA.

"I got death threats. Someone went after my daughter," she said.

But Cash will not go silent on the issue. "At this point, I just can't not say it. To me it's immoral not to say it and to speak my conscience. If one child is saved, then it's worth it."

"I got death threats. Someone went after my daughter."

The NRA sponsors a "lifestyle" program called NRA Country, which the organization touts as a "bond between the best and brightest in country music and hard-working Americans." NRA Country also sponsors live concerts and other events aimed at gun-friendly music fans.

"What's particularly insidious is that [the NRA] has woven together this idea of patriotism and gun ownership. I find it incredibly insulting. I consider myself profoundly patriotic and I am all for gun control," said Cash.

It was a more recent mass shooting, however, that hit especially close to home for the 63-year-old singer-songwriter. Cash grew up in the sleepy Ventura County community of Casitas Springs, where her parents relocated in the early 1960s. Last year a man opened fire on a crowd of people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in nearby Thousand Oaks. Thirteen people were killed, including the gunman.

The day after the massacre Cash tweeted in part: "We can't go on like this. I don't want to hear about thoughts and prayers. I want #GunControlNow."

For her new song, Cash found inspiration in something she overheard — or maybe misheard — on a New York City subway platform.

Cash presents the "Johnny Cash Visionary" award to singer Kris Kristofferson at the 2007 CMT Music Awards on April 16, 2007 in Nashville. The two collaborated on her song "8 Gods of Harlem." (Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)

"This Hispanic woman was talking to herself, and I don't speak Spanish but I thought she said 'ocho dios' — eight Gods," said Cash.

"And I kept thinking, 'Why would she say that, what does that mean?' And then I heard about another shooting of a child and I wrote the first verse from the perspective of the mother."

Cash then approached Kristofferson and Costello about helping her finish the song.

"'I have got this one verse,'" Cash said she told them. "'And Kris, would you write in the voice of the father? And Elvis, would you write in the voice of the brother?' And they wrote their verses and we recorded the song in the same day."

The song concludes with these lines followed by the "eight Gods" refrain: "We pray to the God, the last chance is for rage and vengeance / We pray to the God, beat the drum slowly, neatly folded up and hidden Old Glory."

Cash said she wants what she calls reasonable, common sense laws.

"Universal background checks; close the gun show loophole; ban assault weapons, ban military-style weapons being owned by private citizens," she said. "The Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to own an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Start there."

Rosanne Cash's latest album is "She Remembers Everything." She performs in select cities across the U.S. through the spring.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.